Out of the Zoo: “The Age of Hamilton”


English major Rachel Hungerford, theater major Brooklyn Duttweiler, and history major Chloe Kauffman strike a signature Schuyler sisters pose before “Age of Hamilton” on Monday.

I remember the first time I listened to the Hamilton soundtrack in the fall of 2015. It was my sophomore year, and I was deep in the throes of my musical theater phase. During this unique period of my life I exclusively listened to show tunes, spent all my money on seeing musicals, and obsessed over all things Broadway. Into this era of my life entered Hamilton.

If I remember correctly, I first discovered Hamilton on Instagram when a promotional video for the show popped up on my explore page. After watching Lin Manuel Miranda and his cast of diverse founding fathers hip-hop dance across my phone screen I turned to my mom and told her excitedly, “I think there’s a new musical about Alexander Hamilton!”

I spent the entirety of the next day listening to the soundtrack non-stop. Soon enough I knew all the words by heart, and couldn’t resist bursting into song whenever someone mentioned the show or said anything that remotely reminded me of it. A year later, I even got the chance to see the musical in Chicago, the day after Donald Trump claimed the presidency (my sister wrote a reflection on our experience here). With the passage of time, though, the Hamilton lyrics I memorized gradually faded back into the recesses of my mind–that is, until I registered for Professor Fea’s “Age of Hamilton” course.

As I entered Frey 241 last Wednesday, I soon realized that “Age of Hamilton” might be the most diverse upper level history course I’ll ever take at Messiah. Usually, non-history majors and minors steer clear of challenging history classes, but this course proves an exception. While a little over half half of those I observed in class on the first day were history majors, seats were filled by students from across the academic spectrum–some were theater majors, others study English or Biblical and Religious Studies, still another is pursuing a future in athletic training. Thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, now everyone loves Alexander Hamilton–not just the history majors. I anticipate that our class discussions will be deeply enriched by the variety of perspectives students bring to the table.

The second day of class we discussed Hamilton as a form of “people’s history.” As a preview to his lecture Professor Fea showed us a YouTube clip from the 2009 White House poetry jam, during which Lin Manuel-Miranda performed an early version of Hamilton‘s opening number. My friend Rachel and I smiled sheepishly at each other when we heard Miranda’s unique voice ring through the speakers. Immediately several students began to mouth the lyrics to each other, and soon enough the entire classroom burst into song.

It still baffles me that students from across disciplines will gather every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to learn about the United States’ first secretary of the treasury. Who knew that, because of a musical of all things, so many people would be able to rap about Hamilton’s immigration from the West Indies to New York. Soon enough though, our class will be able to do so much more than spout off song lyrics about Alexander Hamilton. Instead, we will gain a deep and thorough understanding of who he really was. While we will certainly continue to discuss the Hamil-mania that has swept the nation, we won’t be satisfied by a staged portrayal of his existence. Rather, we will read Hamilton’s words, discuss them, and wrestle with the complexities that defined his life. This class will surely broaden all of our horizons.

Out of the Zoo: “Special Olympics”

Annie Thorn is a first-year history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  As part of her internship she will be writing a weekly column for us titled “Out of the Zoo.”  It will focus on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. This week she writes about her work with the Special Olympics.  Enjoy! (Note:  The video posted below is from the Messiah College Special Olympics event in 2018.) –JF

My favorite track meet of the year in high school was always the Parchment Relays. For one, the meet consisted solely of relays–both the traditional races that we ran at every normal meet, and several atypical events, like a hurdle relay and a long distance medley. The best part of the Parchment Relays, though, was the Special Olympics meet that was always held half way through the event. High School athletes would pause their warm-up or cool-down routines to line up along the track and cheer eagerly for Special Olympics athletes as they ran, walked, or wheeled their way to the finish line. My team would always cheer extra loud for our coach’s little brother Todd, who competed faithfully in the Special Olympics meet every year with an excited smile on his face.

I was thrilled when I found out several weeks ago that the Parchment Relays wouldn’t be my last interaction with Special Olympics. To my excitement, I learned that it is a tradition at Messiah College for all first-year students to serve as Special Olympics buddies when the school hosts the Area M Games–a massive Special Olympics event with well over a thousand athletes–on Service Day every year. We lined up with our Created and Called for Community classes early Thursday morning as we waited to be paired with an athlete for the day.

My Special Olympics buddy (we’ll call him Robert) was a second grader from a local elementary school. After being paired with Robert, his teacher greeted me with a warm smile, handed me his event card, and was quick to tell me that he was nonverbal. To be completely honest, this threw me for a loop at first. When I met Robert that day I didn’t know one bit of sign language; by the grace of God I ran into someone who taught me the signs for yes, no, and bathroom. Eventually, though, we settled into a rhythm–Robert stuck faithfully by my side as we wove through crowds to his different events, and put up with my repeated high-fives and fist bumps after his races. Even though I never heard his voice, I still learned about Robert that day.  I learned that his favorite color is red, he loves to dance, and he can eat two whole sandwiches before I finish one. Not only did I learn a lot about Robert that day, but I learned a lot from him too.

Robert taught me that there are myriad of ways someone can communicate, even if they don’t use their voice. As historians, the people we interact with the most in our research usually can’t talk to us–a lot of times because the ones we work with and study are people who lived and died a long, long time ago. As much as we wish we could, we can’t sit next to Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Amelia Earhart and converse with them for hours on end; we can’t physically hear their voices, or listen to them tell us their favorite color or kind of tea or way to pass the time. But even so, we can still learn from them. We look at their writings, their records, the things they leave behind and learn to communicate in a different way. Sometimes it takes a little more work than we anticipated–sometimes we don’t understand them right away, or aren’t equipped with the right tools to maintain a conversation at first. Sometimes we get frustrated because the people we try to understand are much different from us. When we’re patient, though, and persistent, we can come from our historical conversations having learned more than we ever thought we would.

The History Major is in Decline, but not at Yale


Last week we reported on an American Historical Association study that revealed a 33% decline in the number of history majors in United States colleges and universities.  But this is not the case at Yale.  Here is a taste of Carly Wanna’s piece at Yale News:

Despite national trends, Yale’s undergraduate program remains one of the five most popular majors at Yale, with 129 students declared in the class of 2019 alone.

According to department chair Joanne Meyerowitz, Yale’s Department of History plans to add as many as 11 new professors of history, six of which would focus on non-American and non-European history.

“Yale has a long tradition of a robust history major, and the college places emphasis on the importance of the liberal arts,” Meyerowitz said. “Over the past few years, we’ve made a concerted effort to hire more faculty in African-, Asian- and Latin American history and, more generally, in international and transnational history.”

Read the entire piece here.

Here is my quick take:  Yale graduates get jobs regardless of major simply because of the Yale name and alumni base.  Yale students are thus able to take more risks in choosing a major.  Thoughts?

What Happened to the History Major?

9288b-historymajorAccording to a recent report from the American Historical Association, the undergraduate history major is in steep decline.  In the last six years, the number of history majors in American colleges and universities has dropped by about 33%, more than any other discipline.   And this is in a period when university enrollments have grown.  Here is a taste of the report:

Optimists may look at the last year’s line in these charts and note that the rate of decline appears to have slowed. It is reasonable to hope that the trends of the last decade will eventually bottom out, perhaps even in the next year or two. At this point, though, it would take several unprecedented years of growth in history majors to return to mid-2000s numbers; departments should not expect a rapid rebound. While there are anecdotal accounts of students seeking out history in the current political climate, leading indicators of student interest are at best mixed; most notably, the AHA’s survey of course enrollments in a number of departments for the 2016–17 academic year found continued declines in credit hours. (Editor’s note: results of the AHA enrollments survey for 2017–18 will be published in the January issue of Perspectives.)

Those enrollment numbers suggest one possible long-term trend: that history departments will become more oriented toward introductory-level courses. Although I am not aware of good data on credit hours for the critical period 2010–12, it seems that the declines in enrollments since then may have been gentler than the drops in majors. Students still take history courses—but more often, apparently, as electives, as requirements for other majors, or as general education requirements. If major numbers do not recover, each of these areas will become more important. One common plan, for joint or hybrid majors, is peripherally tracked in the IPEDS data through reporting of second majors. These numbers capture students who major in fields like “Political science and history” where any other field might occupy the first position. They do not seem to offer great consolation; history’s share of second majors mirrors its overall trend in the last decade.

Ultimately, whether through majors or course enrollments, the long-term state of the discipline will rest on how it adapts to a cohort of students—and their parents—who are much less receptive to arguments for the liberal arts than previous generations have been. Many departments and organizations have worked out useful ways to articulate the purpose of the major. These are undoubtedly helping attract and retain students today. (The institutions that made up AHA’s Tuning project, an initiative to this end, are among those on the front lines; the first set of Tuning departments reported marginally better enrollments from 2014 to 2017, though not so strongly that I am confident in their statistical significance.) As the 2008 crisis moves farther into the past, we should attempt to identify departments that have had the most notable successes.

Read the entire report here.

No commentary yet.  I need to think through this report a bit more.

Historian Nathan Hatch is the Highest Paid College President in the U.S.

f53b9-hatchWhat can you do with a history major?  Earn $4 million a year as a college president.

Many readers of this blog know Nathan Hatch for his award-winning The Democratization of American Christianity.  But did you know that he was pulling in $4,004,617 as president of Wake Forest University? Wow!

Learn more here.

It’s also worth noting that Jerry Falwell Jr. makes $958,021 as president of Liberty University.

A Day with the History Department at Kean University

Liberty Hall Kean

Liberty Hall at Kean University.  Liberty Hall was the home of William Livingston, the first governor of the state of New Jersey. 

As I posted earlier this week, I spent the day on Tuesday with the History Department at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.  I am working with Kean as a “public humanities consultant” for their National Endowment for the Humanities program “William Livingston’s World.

First, was very impressed with the Kean History Department and the hospitality I received during my visit.  Special thanks to Jonathan Mercantini (Acting Dean of the College of Liberty Arts) and Elizabeth Hyde (Department Chair).

In the morning, I talked about public engagement with the faculty and campus archives staff.  We had a spirited discussion about whether or not our public engagement as historians should be more political and activist-oriented than our classroom teaching.  I think it is fair to say that we were divided on this question.

In the afternoon, I met with four honors students who wrote papers and created websites on William Livingston.  During this session we watched the “director’s cut” of the Liberty Hall 360 re-enactment of the Susannah Livingston-John Jay wedding.  Several of the students worked on the script.  It was fun chatting with undergraduates who have traveled to archives with Livingston collections, read Livingston’s letters, and tried to make sense of the political, intellectual, and religious life of this New Jersey founding father.

One of these students approached me after the session with a signed copy of Why Study History?  My inscription read: “Caleb, keep studying history and I hope you do so at Messiah College.”  It was dated 2014.  Needless to say, we did not land Caleb at Messiah, but he certainly had a wonderful undergraduate career at Kean.  Caleb asked me to sign the book again with an inscription that began “four years later….”  It was a great encounter with a big undergraduate fish I was unable to land!  🙂

Finally, I met with five adjunct faculty members who teach the department’s general education course: “HIST 1062: Modern World Civilizations: Crises of the Contemporary World.”  We had a great discussion about how to teach historical thinking skills to non-history majors.

Needless to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and hope to return soon to continue consulting on the William Livingston project.  As I noted in my previous post, I think this is a model grant for any history department interested in merging public history, public humanities, career preparation, and the undergraduate history curriculum.

An Undergraduate History Club Goes to the AHA Annual Meeting

Humboldt State

AHA Today has posted a great piece on the Humboldt State University History Club’s experience at this year’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Here is a taste of Blanca Drapeau’s article:

There we were. A small group of Californian undergrads, winter layers piled over our business casual attire, perusing the AHA 2017 annual meeting program over coffee and pastries. We discussed panels that piqued our interests, excitedly pointing out historians we’d read for our courses and asking each other about unfamiliar terms. Last year was my senior year at Humboldt State University and the second year I attended the AHA annual meeting with our History Club. I was president of our club and the only student attending who had gone to another annual meeting. A semester of planning and fundraising efforts all came down to one incredible short week in Denver.

Humboldt State has a well-established tradition of history majors attending AHA annual meetings. The History Club, which organizes the trip, is open to all students, but a vast majority of its members are in the history program. The club meets once a week to discuss historical topics and provide academic support. Our elevator pitch to new members always includes the opportunity to attend the annual meeting. (Last year, it was simply, “we’re taking a trip to Denver this year for a history conference.”) As soon as the fall semester begins, members who wish to attend the annual meeting start fundraising for the trip.

We generally take a multi-pronged approach to fundraising. Last year, for four days a week, we organized a snack table in our department’s building. HSU (Humboldt State University) also stands for Hills, Stairs, & Umbrellas—most days walking to and from Founders Hall to any other snack shop between classes is an undertaking—and the ease of access served our snack table well. In our experience, the table has proved to be a reliable form of funding for our group. We also applied for grants through our school’s clubs office, successfully receiving the maximum amount of funds granted each year. Additionally, we held rummage/book sales—our professors were amazing and donated boxes of books!

Read the rest here.

The Problem With Majoring in Business


To be fair, Chris Gehrz‘s post at The Pietist Schoolman is actually titled “The (Potential) Problems with Majoring in Business.”  Gerhz responds to a Chronicle of Higher Education list of the most popular majors at the nation’s 40 largest public universities.  As you might expect, Business is the most popular major at 23 of these universities and is second or third most popular at seven more.


Here is a taste of Gehrz’s post:

…in the abstract, I don’t think that it’s a bad idea to major in business.

But I find it enormously troubling that that field is so disproportionately popular in American higher education.

First, a problem that should be familiar to any business major: at a certain point, the supply of any good or service will exceed the demand for it.

Yes, too many marketing majors can saturate the market.

At which point there’s very little that even gifted marketers can do to make attractive their college-trained, debt-laden product to employers who either need fewer employees with that training — or have recognized that the market has been overlooking other sources of the same labor (e.g., history majors who are trained to pick up field-specific skills as they go, but already have the scarce writing, research, critical thinking, interpersonal, and intercultural skills that employers claim to value above major).

Look, if you have a passion for marketing or feel a calling to management, that’s great. Business is a wonderful fit for you: you’ll enjoy and thrive in courses that will move you closer to your goals. Let me introduce you to my neighbors here at Bethel!

But that description fits only a tiny minority of 18-year olds. In my fifteen years of talking to those students and their parents, I’ve found that most are trying to make an important decision (college major) with too little information and too much anxiety. Desperate to ensure employment, they pick what seems like the most straightforward path to a job. But because their decision is only one of millions like it, they actually risk making their employment less likely.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Trump Saving the History Major?

Trump Jackson Tomb

Trump at Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Tennessee

Check out Amy X. Wang‘s piece at Quartz: “Donald Trump’s presidency is saving the history degree.”  She brings together a lot of stuff we have been writing about here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

Here is a taste:

Stagnant and predictable, the history major had been slowly dying. American college students were turning to fast-paced and dynamic fields like engineering or economics—and ones with a guaranteed salary payoff at the end. In March 2016, the National Center for Education Statistics found that the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded in history was in dramatic decline, falling as much as 9.1% from a year earlier in 2014. The explosive growth of lucrative, forward-leaping Silicon Valley in the last decade seems to have rendered the history major, a curriculum focused on immutable events of decades ago, all the less relevant.

Then came Trump—whose November election brought upon frantic Google searches such as “How did this happen?

Trump’s win has broken through an apathy barrier of sorts. People who’d become disengaged with politics suddenly started paying attention again. It has spilled over into education: search data reveals a surge of interest in studying history in the latter half of 2016 (with a peak and crash-dip in late December, likely due to that being the deadline for US college applications).

Read the rest here.  Thanks to reader James King (@eloryjetson) for bringing this piece to my attention.

Episode 21 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Drops in Two Hours

HartleyEpisode 21 will be here at midnight.

The episode is titled “Why We Need More History Majors in the Silicon Valley.” My commentary focuses on the National Endowment for the Humanities and we spend some time chatting with one of the show’s sponsors, Dr. J of Jennings College Consulting.

Our guest is venture capitalist Scott Hartley (@scottehartley), author of The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts will Rule the Digital World.

Stay tuned.


23 Jobs for History Majors

3DCoverI just came across a really interesting website titled “Sell Out Your Soul: A Career Guide for Lost Humanities Majors”  It is run by James Mulvey, a former English student who now works at a global software company.  He started the site to “inspire others to run from the culture of fear, isolation, and single-mindedness that keeps many graduate students from finding employment outside of academia.”

Here is a taste of a post titled “23 of the Best Jobs for History Majors“:

If you’re wondering what careers are available for History majors, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve collected 23 of the best jobs for History majors—careers that pay well, complement the skills taught in History departments and have long-term growth.

Despite the lies you’ve been told from the annoying Engineering major or clueless Business major, History majors end up in a variety of interesting places.

So pour yourself a beer. Roll up your sleeves. And let’s take a fast tour of the best careers for History majors.

The point of the list isn’t to tell you the exact steps to get these careers. That would be a long post and I cover that in my book. Use this list to decide on a general direction. Then go and search those careers on the following sites: Glassdoor, LinkedIn advanced search, Twitter advanced search, and Reddit. This will give you a realistic view of what your day-to-day would be like and whether this career would be a good match for you.

The jobs include Exhibit Designer, Content Creator, Customer Success Manager, Business Analyst, Growth Hacker, Product Marketing, PR Manager, Internal Communications, Content Strategist, Web Developer, Journalist, Project Manager, Social Media Manager, Content Editor, Research Analyst at Think Tanks, Political Campaign Manager, Government work.

Read how James connects the skills of history majors to these jobs.

How is the History Major Doing at Your Institution?


On Friday I posted about the revival of the history major at Yale University.  I linked to an article in the Yale Daily News that reported on the growing popularity of this major at the prestigious Ivy-League institution of higher learning.

The article quotes Alan Mikhail, the History Director of Undergraduate Studies at Yale. He writes:

“I think our current historical moment is also drawing students to history,” Mikhail said. “Both economic and political modeling failed to predict and then address the financial crisis of a few years ago and to forecast the outcome of the election of 2016. The tools of historians are better suited to the work of understanding the world.”

I am intrigued by Mikhail’s statement.  I am curious to see if the “historical moment” in which we live is prompting more high school and college students to pursue the study of history.  Since I posted this piece on Friday several college and university history faculty have contact me to tell me that the number of history majors are rising at their institutions.

How about you?  Are you seeing an rise in history majors?  Does this revival extend beyond the hallowed halls of Yale?

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?–Part 55

watsonWork as a financial analyst.

Here is our interview with Drew Watson, a Louisiana Tech University history major who currently works as a Financial Analyst for Acquisition Management Group LLC in Macon, Georgia.

JF: Why did you decide to major in history in college?

DW: I originally wanted to be an archaeologist (a big part of me still wants to go dig in the future) and watched Indiana Jones a few too many times.  The next best option was History, so that is what I jumped into at Louisiana Tech University.

JF: What is your current job/vocation?

DW: Financial Analyst and Account Manager for a commercial debt purchasing firm.  We are a company who purchases delinquent debt from creditors and seek to work out settlements with debtors that the other creditors are unwilling or unable to make.  I research the debtors’ information who owe delinquent commercial bank debts and determine what kind of settlement we can obtain for our company.  I also negotiate with debtors on such accounts for repayment.

JF: Can you suggest some tangible connections between your current job and your history training?

DW: Primarily what I use are the raw research skills I learned from history.  I look through the data available on a particular debtor – financial histories, assets, work history, etc.  I take state, locality, nationality, and even religion at times into consideration.  Most of what I do is not detailed accounting work, but finding and compiling information and looking at the big picture as to what kind of deal we may be able to make with someone.  I also have to be able to write well and do some legal investigations at times, particularly on bankruptcy matters.

JF: What advice would you provide to current or future history majors about making the most of their studies and degree?  

DW: Look not into the specific information that you are being taught, but take a step back and look at the skills you are learning.  Learning what questions to ask is a far better skill than learning what answers to give.

Take classes from professors with whom you may conflict philosophically.  I am fairly conservative, so finding conflicting viewpoints in college was not hard.  A couple of my favorite professors were stoutly liberal, and respected well-articulated views of students with whom they disagreed.

Learn how to research well, and learn how to write well.  Knowing how to find the answers and communicate them is better than being able to answer the questions on a test.  Those two skills put you in a good position for success down the road.

Focus on those courses which convey life skills.  Looking back, there are several classes that I am glad I took (technical writing, creative writing, ballroom dancing) and classes that I should have taken (more basic business classes, statistics, and a logic/philosophy course).  EVERYONE should also take personal finance courses – I am a natural penny-pincher, but with student debt so out of control now, learning how to handle money is essential.

While you are in school, or when you get out, do not limit yourself because of your degree.  I got my job simply because I had an MA.  Get a job.  Be willing to move.  Be willing to step outside your boundaries.  Stick with it – do not let pride or ego limit you from getting your hands dirty – you may trip into something you like!

Thanks, Drew!

For more interviews like this one click here.

So What CAN You Do With a History Major?

got-historyThis year I am hoping to do some more interviews in our  “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?”  series.

Were you a history major in college? If so, what are you doing today? How have you put your history major to use in the marketplace? I am interested in hearing from history majors who have used their college history training, and the skills acquired from such training,  in a variety of fields and jobs.

NOTE: If we have already featured a post on a person doing something similar to you feel free to send in your story anyway. All of our vocational pilgrimages are different, even when we end up in relatively the same place. In other words, our readers can learn something from you!

The Number of History Majors Continues to Drop

keep-calm-and-study-history-36Allen Mikaelian, a historian, writer, and former staff member at the American Historical Association (and editor of Perspectives on History), reports that the number of history majors in the United States continues to decline in the wake of the 2008 recession.

This is sad news to report, especially on the eve of the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in Denver.  According to Mikaelian’s data, which he draws from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of bachelor’s degrees in history dropped by 9 percent for the second year in a row.  Not good.

I hope that Mikaelian’s report will trigger much conversation in Denver.  Most academic historians work at institutions where teaching is paramount.  Sharing research, of course, is important and necessary to a thriving historical profession.  And many will have the opportunity to present their work in Denver.  But for many of us, perhaps most of us, our employment and the vitality of our discipline in our institutional settings depend on history students to fill the seats in our classrooms.  In an age of “prioritization,” professional programming, cash-cow master’s programs, STEM, and the influence of market forces on today’s colleges and universities, academic historians need to take all of this very seriously.

Research institutions have been hit hardest by this decline in history majors, but baccalaureate colleges and master’s colleges and universities are not very far behind.

Check out Mikaelian’s report at History News Service.  He concludes:

I’m eagerly reading and greatly enjoying the raft of recent articles and blog posts by historians how how important and relevant the discipline is to understanding recent turmoils. It can’t be denied that it’s a great time to be a historian. Still, it’s hard to say that historians’ voices are being heard through the noise and are convincing undergrads, or the public at large, that rigorous study of the past matters. History right now seems to be something that students and the public are happy to consume, but not something that they feel the need to go out and do.

The History Majors We Celebrate


I am convinced that the culture of college history departments need to change.  History majors have a lot to offer society and the marketplace in a variety of fields, yet the faculty in history departments honor and celebrate those students who go to graduate school in history, largely because these students aspire to be just like us.  Imitation is the highest form of flattery.  So faculty think of these students as feathers in their caps–evidence that we are educating them in the right way.

I am not so sure that this approach is healthy.  It is time that history faculty develop a different kind of culture in their departments–a culture in which the model students are the ones who go into nonhistory or nonacademic fields where they can find meaningful and fulfilling work.

What would happen if we celebrated our graduates who get jobs in the corporate or nonprofit world in the same way we celebrate those who have been accepted to graduate schools at Ivy League universities?

(This post is adapted from Chapter 8 of my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past).

Is It “Stupid” to Take Out a Student Loan to Major in History?


I don’t know the story behind the woman who just called Dave Ramsey‘s show, but Ramsey has decided to take whatever she said and apply it to everyone who is “stupid” enough to major in history or let their kids major in history.  In the midst of his ranting, raving, and name-calling he advances a very “stupid” and uninformed and ignorant argument about the value of a history major.

What saddens me is Ramsey’s complete ignorance of the many ways the study of college-level history prepares young people to contribute to our democratic society.  For him, history is little more than a fun hobby that is not useful to society unless it can provide someone with a comfortable middle-class income.  Ramsey offers a vision of the good life informed by economic determinism.  I have never listened to Ramsey, but I am guessing that he gives reasonably good economic advice.  Too bad it is at the expense of strengthening democratic life and perhaps even the life of the church.

But even if you do think a nice middle-class income and all the accoutrements that come with it are important, studies show that history majors do just as well in the long run as those who majored in other subjects and disciplines.  Ramsey is buying into a false narrative, one that we have debunked over and over and over again here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home in our  “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series and in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past? He also assumes that history is a “career” and not a course of study that contributes to ways of thinking that can be useful in all kinds of fields.

Majoring in history is not only a wise decision if you are interested in making the world a better place, but it is also a good economic decision, even if you need to take out a student loan.

There other implications to Ramsey’s tirade.  Most of Ramsey’s listeners are evangelical Christians.  By telling parents not to let their kids leave the state or attend a private institution, Ramsey undercuts evangelical Christian colleges.  In essence, he is saying that a Christian college is not worth it if you cannot pay the full tuition.  If this logic were to be put into practice Christian colleges would close.  Most students do not pay full tuition.  Parents who send their kids to these schools believe that it is worth taking out a loan for their children to get a faith-based education. In his next episode, I want Ramsey to be more specific and tell his audience that it is “stupid” if they send their kids to an evangelical college unless they can pay for it.

Ramsey also unwittingly undercuts the religious liberty arguments made by California Christian colleges in the face of the proposed bill (which has now been tabled) that would not have allowed students who attend Christian colleges to receive state loans because these colleges take traditional views on marriage and homosexuality.  In response to this bill the presidents of California Christian colleges argued that struggling poor and lower-middle class families could not receive a Christian education without these loans.  The premise behind this argument was that a Christian college education has benefits that go beyond student debt and economic considerations.

Sadly, a lot of evangelical Christians think all of Ramsey’s financial advice came down from Mount Sinai.

What Explains the Decline in History Majors?

keep-calm-and-study-history-36The number of undergraduates majoring in history at 4-year colleges and universities is in decline.   In the first post in my recent  “What Should Historians Be Thinking About?” series I pointed to this decline.

In the May 2016 issue of Perspectives on History, a publication of the American Historical Association, Julia Brookins summarizes reports from history department chairs and faculty members responding to this decline.

Here is how people in the trenches explain the decline in history majors (my summary):

  1. The 2008 recession led high school students to think about majoring in a field that would give them more economic security and a more direct career path.
  2. Colleges and universities throwing money into STEM fields at the expense of the humanities
  3. History departments are still doing a poor job of articulating what students can do with a history major.
  4. More men major in history than women and fewer men are attending college.
  5. History departments are too rigorous or at least present themselves that way.  This may scare students off.
  6. History departments rely too heavily on introductory courses to recruit students in an age when an ever-increasing number of students are taking their history requirement in community colleges or fulfilling the requirement through AP exams and dual enrollment.
  7. Changes in general education requirements at many colleges now allow students to fulfill such requirements without taking a history course.
  8. Jobs in traditional history-related fields such as K-12 teaching and the law are declining

Read the entire piece to see how Brookins unpacks these points.

She concludes:

The current decline in history majors appears to be driven by structural changes in the incredibly diverse landscape of American higher education and the national economy, local variables that reflect the consequences of actions and policies at several levels, and longer-term demographic shifts. It will be at least a few years before we can see how faculty and administrators’ efforts to revitalize and promote history undergraduate programs will influence the size of future history cohorts and the quality of their learning experiences.

What Should Historians Be Thinking About?–Part 1

Boyer Hall

Read the entire series and get some context for it here.

What should historians be thinking about?  I could answer this question in a variety of ways.  As an early American historian I could discuss the state of my field.  As a historian who is interested in American religion I could suggest opportunities for future research. As a Christian who has written about the integration of faith and history, and who will be the program chair of the 50th anniversary meeting of the Conference on Faith History in 2018, I could discuss the different ways Christians think about their vocations as historians.  As a faculty member and department chair at a small college I could talk about ways to cultivate a career as a historian at an institution where teaching is paramount.

As readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home know, I am interested in all of these things and hope to write more about them here and elsewhere.

But as I see it, to focus on these things in a series of posts about what historians should be thinking about right now would be the equivalent of arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

So here is what I want to write about:

What happens to our work as historians, the conversations we have about our vocations as historians, and our callings as history teachers and professors, when we no longer have students who are interested in the study of history and, more broadly, the humanities and the liberal arts.

From the perspective of Christian colleges, like the one where I teach, I think it is fair to say that the Christian liberal arts and the humanities no longer define the culture of our institutions.  This is ironic (and tragic), since the questions raised by the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, are the things that make the mission of a Christian college Christian.

And now for some evidence:

Robert Townsend of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and Co-Director of the Academy’s “Humanities Indicators” project,  just released a study showing that in 2014 the number of history majors in the United States dropped 9.1%. This is the largest one-year decline in nearly forty years.  (I might also add that the number of Ph.Ds awarded in history once again rose).

A few years ago, when the number of history majors began to drop at my own institution, I took an informal and very unscientific survey of history departments among the schools in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities.  (No, I am not willing to share this at this moment–you will just have to trust me).  My survey revealed that almost every school in the Coalition has dropped in history majors.  A similar informal survey among the church-related schools in the Lilly Fellows in Humanities and Arts Network revealed similar results.

When I arrived at Messiah College in 2002 we had about 100 history majors. We now have half as many history majors. The number of incoming history majors in the class of 2020 (incoming first-year students) is down about 75% from the class of 2019.  Ironically, this decline began as the department grew in the number of faculty and in the diversity of our course offerings.. The department also remains one of the strongest departments in the college in terms of teaching evaluations, advising evaluations, and scholarly production.

(Perhaps this bad news will help with recruitment.  Students can now come to study history at Messiah College and get a lot of personal attention from a first-rate faculty).

What explains these drops in history enrollment?  Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.